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Thomas Burns lived from 1796 to 23 January 1871. He was a Presbyterian church minister from Ayrshire who became an early European settler and religious leader in New Zealand. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Thomas Burns was born in Mauchline in Ayrshire. He was the son of Gilbert Burns, an estate manager who was also the younger brother of poet Robert Burns. In 1800 Gilbert Burns moved to what is now East Lothian to take up a post as estate manager. Thomas was educated at Haddington Grammar School before going to the University of Edinburgh, where he studied theology.
In 1826 Burns was ordained as minister of the parish of Ballantrae in South Ayrshire, and in 1830 he married Clementina Grant. They lived together in Monkton, on the edge of what is now Prestwick Airport. Burns became part of the Free Church during the Disruption of 1843. He was subsequently offered a post as Free Church minister at New Edinburgh (later called Otago) in the southern part of the south island of New Zealand. The 47 year old Burns set sail from Greenock on 27 November 1847 on board the Philip Laing, with his wife, six children and 232 other settlers. They arrived in the new settlement of Dunedin on 15 April 1848 and Burns rapidly established himself as a church minister and as an expert on farming techniques.
Burns was highly influential in developing the Presbyterian church in Otago and the surrounding area. He also helped establish the Otago Boys' High School and the Otago Girls' High School during the 1870s, and was on the founding committee of the University of Otago, becoming its first Chancellor from 1869 until his death on 23 January 1871. He is buried in Dunedin Southern Cemetery. His was survived by his wife Clementina, who died seven years later.